|“When you take a census of the Israelites [to determine] their numbers, each one will be counted by giving an atonement offering for his life.... Everyone included in the census must give a half-shekel.” (Ex.30:12-13)|
Why were the Israelites commanded to give a half-shekel coin, and not a whole shekel? And why is this donation required when counting the people?
The Unity of Israel
All societies require a degree of harmony and goodwill. Social cohesion is critical to attain prosperity and success. For the Jewish people, however, unity is not just a means to achieve worldly objectives. Social unity is a far greater value, a goal unto itself. Our highest aspiration is to merit closeness to God, and God’s Presence dwells in Israel only when they live in peace and harmony. As the Sages taught: “When is My Name called upon Israel? When they are united” (Sifre VeZot HaBrachah 346).
There is a second difference between the unity sought by the Jewish people and that of the other nations. A society may be unified in two ways: in deed and in thought. ‘Unity in deed’ refers to practical actions to assist one’s neighbors or to contribute to the nation as a whole. ‘Unity in thought’ means concern for fellow citizens and love for one’s people.
While all nations need both forms of unity, only practical cooperation is essential for a nation to realize its material objectives. For the Jewish people, however, peace is a prerequisite for God’s Presence and special providence, and this peace depends primarily on unity in the heart. Thus, for Israel ‘unity in thought’ is the ultimate goal, while ‘unity in deed’ is a means to bolster and strengthen it.
What does this have to do with the yearly donation of half-shekels? The collection of half-shekels is a vehicle for uniting the Jewish people in deed and action. The money was used to provide for the nation’s spiritual needs - to supply the daily Temple offerings — as well as its material needs — funds left over were used to maintain the city walls and towers (Shekalim 4:1–2).
When other nations unite for some public objective, such as raising an army or collecting taxes, they arrange a census in order to determine how much each individual must contribute toward the collective effort. This census does not contradict the purpose of their unified efforts, since the ultimate goal is to benefit each individual. For the Jewish people, however, the purpose of joining together is to benefit and elevate the nation as a whole. A census negates the ultimate objective, as it emphasizes the portion of the individual. For this reason, the Torah requires that we do not count the people directly, but use half-shekel coins donated for national needs, thereby stressing that this count is for the benefit of the nation.
The half-shekel coins collected in the time of Moses were used to make the adanim, the silver sockets that formed the Tabernacle’s foundation. This act established the connection between each individual’s service of God and the spiritual accomplishments of the nation. Even without a spiritual center in Jerusalem, the unity of Israel protects the Jewish people, as the service of each individual contributes to elevate the nation as a whole.
Directing this benefit to the nation requires some unifying act. This was initially accomplished through the donations to build the Tabernacle. Later it was the half-shekels donated for the daily Temple service. And nowadays it is performed through our communal reading of Parashat Shekalim each year.
Now we may understand what the Sages wrote in Megillah 13b:
|“God knew that Haman would pay shekel coins for [permission to destroy] the Jews. Therefore God anticipated the shekel coins of the Jewish people to those of Haman, as we learned, ‘The collection of shekalim is announced on the first day of Adar’ [thus preceding Haman’s plot to annihilate the Jews on the thirteenth of Adar].”|
What is the connection between our donations and Haman’s bribe?
The nations were aware of the special Divine providence protecting the Jewish people and were reluctant to harm them. Haman, however, felt that this protection was only in force when the Jewish people lived together as one people in their own land. But once they were exiled from their land, they were no longer a nation, just a group of individuals — “dispersed and separated among the nations” (Esther 3:8). Stripped of their Divine protection, he reasoned that it was now possible to annihilate them. Therefore he weighed out his silver shekels to purchase the right “to destroy them” (Esther 3:9). Not “to destroy it” — the nation — but them — these dispersed individuals.
God, however, thwarted his plot, as the Jewish people are united even when they are in exile. By preceding Haman’s shekels with our shekel donation, we demonstrate the unity and collective holiness of Israel at all times.
Each individual was commanded to give a half-shekel in the census. Why a half-shekel? They would have certainly donated a full shekel were it not for the specific instruction that “the wealthy shall not add more.” The two halves of the shekel correspond to the two forms of unity. The half-shekel that was given reflects their unity in deed, their practical cooperation; and the second half that they wanted to give corresponds to their unity in thought.
The Midrash states that Moses had difficulty understanding which coin to collect, so God showed him a half-shekel coin made out of fire from beneath His Throne of Glory (Bemidbar Rabbah 12:3). What did Moses have difficulty understanding? And why does the Midrash speak of a fire-coin that came from beneath God’s throne?
Moses did not understand why the Israelites needed to donate a half-shekel and not a full shekel. Therefore God showed him a fire-coin from a very elevated place, from under His throne, the source of the souls of Israel. In other words, God showed Moses the second half of the shekel — not the metal coin that was collected, a sign of their practical cooperation, but a coin of fire, representing their unity in thought, a burning love emanating from the very root of their souls.
(Silver from the Land of Israel, pp. 129-132. Adapted from Midbar Shur, pp. 127-136.)